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Harry Bertoia's Jewelry Design

Midcentury-master Harry Bertoia's oeuvre includes iconic furniture, prints and drawings, sculpture, jewelry, and more. His daughter Celia recently spoke at San Francisco's Zinc Details as part of the Design Salon series. In case you couldn't make it, we sent her a few questions about what it was like to grow up in a creative family, about her father's legacy, and why Bertoia signed very few of his works.
Prolific midcentury designer Harry Bertoia experimented with jewelry throughout his career. "He did more detailed things with his jewelry, because it is smaller scale and more easily manipulated," his daughter Celia says. "Also, his jewelry is quite playful in a way that neither the chairs nor the sculpture is."

What was it like to grow up in a creative family?
 
It was great. I didn’t realize how different it was until I was in junior high. I went over to my other girlfriends’ houses and realized that their dinner conversations were so different. They talked logistics, i.e. who is going to pick up so-and-so from cheerleading etc. But at my house we talked about philosophy and questions like where were you before you were born, how many planets in the solar system out there do you think have life on them, and art and just everything. It was wonderful. I didn’t fully appreciate it until I was out of the house. And creativity—we children were always encouraged to be creative in whatever form that came out. Harry never pushed us in any specific direction.
 

"Metal was in his blood," Celia says of her father's natural aptitude with the material. "He had a real affinity toward metal and knew the qualities of each type of metal and alloy and as he learned how to create jewelry, he learned more about the qualities of metal."

Is there a particular design of your father’s that is special or meaningful to you?
 
I would say that the most meaningful to me is a ring that I wear, a very simple silver cast ring. And the way I got this was very special. I live in Bozeman, Montana, and about five years ago I had made the decision that I was going to take on the role of furthering the legacy of Harry Bertoia. I had put that out into the universe. I hadn’t really done anything with it yet. This woman called on the phone. She had seen my name in the newspaper and asked me if I was related to Harry Bertoia. I said “yes” and I knew already that something was up, because I really didn’t talk about my father that much in those days. Well, she lived right in Bozeman but she had taken a jewelry class from Harry 60 years ago at Cranbrook Academy of Art. She was in her 80s had no heirs and she said that Harry had made a ring in his metal class to show them the cast technique. She said, “I am not going to be around too much longer and I want to give this back to the family.” So she gave me the ring. I put it on and it fit perfectly. I have been wearing it ever since. It was affirmation that I was on track.
 
Some of Bertoia's jewelry pieces look like precursors his larger sculptures. Can you tell me about which ones those are and what the relationship would be?
 
There were some brooches that were wire—like wire cages with pebbles inside—or gems. And in some ways those remind me of the chairs, because of the wire construction. Then there were some, mostly brooches again, that were metal forms, sort of blobby, like little creatures. He did all kind of sculptures like that, too, that suggested something organic or something alive. You couldn’t quite tell what it was, but looked very natural. I would say that the jewelry and the sculptures both have that.
Bertoia did much of his experimentation with jewelry while he attended Cranbrook in the 1940s. "I think the jewelry was really his foundation and his learning process, to get the understanding of metal that he needed," Celia says. Some of the pieces appear to be precursors to his later work. "There were some brooches that were wire, like wire cages with pebbles inside, or gems. And in some ways those remind me of the chairs, because of the wire construction," Celia says.

How does your father’s jewelry design reflect his creative sensibilities in a way that the large scale sculptures or furniture does not?
 
I would say that he did more detailed things with his jewelry, because it is smaller scale and more easily manipulated. Also, his jewelry is quite playful in a way that neither the chairs nor the sculptures are. Some of the sculptures have a bit of joy in there, but the jewelry especially is lighter. The monumental sculptures are huge and impressive, but they are very different from the jewelry in this respect. And, although they have a certain delicacy with the wire grid, you can’t really call the chair designs playful either.
 
Could you share something about your father’s work or his creative process that most people don’t know?
 
Like many successful passionate artists, Harry was a workaholic. He would go to work 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 pm. Then he would come home and we would have dinner at 5:30. Often times Brigitta and Harry would play a game of chess, especially in the winter if it was dark. Then he would read a magazine on the couch for a while and take a short nap and then about 9:00 he would go back to work. And that was his personal experimentation time. He did the public commissions and the work that was already spoken for during the day with the helpers. And at night he would do things that he had been aching to do, to play around with. And if he got on a roll, often times he would work through the night and not even realize it. He had two brothers who worked under him and they would come at 8:00 in the morning, and they would see Harry in the same clothes as yesterday, all disheveled and they would say “Harry what are you doing here?” And he just didn’t even realize that the night had passed.
 

Reproductions of Bertoia's jewelry, like this ring design, can be purchased at harrybertoia.org.

What do you think your father wanted his legacy to be?
 
I can say a few things about that. He never signed anything except early on when he was in school. The reason he didn't sign his work is that he felt that he was merely the vehicle for the creative juices to flow through. And to put one man’s name as a possessive signature, just didn’t feel appropriate to him. And he also did not title his works, unless he was requested to by whomever he was working for. And he didn’t title them because he preferred that each viewer interpret his work in their own way.

He loved to hear what people thought about his work. And what did he want his legacy to be? He did feel like he made his mark on the world. In the end he had lung cancer and he knew he would be dying soon, so he had time to ponder that. He would say things like “I am not really leaving you. Whenever you hear the wind rustling the leaves in a tree you’ll think of me. Or if you see the grasses blowing, you will think of me.” So I guess that is as close as he got to answering that question. I see my role as furthering his legacy and really I think his legacy is not only that of a great artist, but a very fine human being, with integrity, passion and depth.

Read more about another modernist jewelry designer, Margaret de Patta, from Dwell's July/August 2012 issue.

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